By Peter Amsterdam
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The foundation of Christlikeness is God-centered devotion, having the right personal attitude toward God, recognizing who He is and our position in relation to Him, which includes three elements: the fear of God, the love of God, and the desire for God.
Fear of God
Scripture uses the phrase “fear of God” in two distinct ways: (1) as anxious dread, and (2) as veneration, reverence, and awe. Fear as anxious dread is produced by the realization of God’s impending judgment upon sin, such as Adam hiding from God after he had sinned because he was afraid.1 However, Christians have been delivered from God’s wrath, and therefore the fear of eternal separation from God is done away with. We of course can fall under God’s discipline due to our sins, and we might fear His discipline, but we don’t have the dread of fearing God’s wrath.
For believers, the primary meaning of the fear of God is veneration and honor, reverence and awe. Jerry Bridges wrote: “It is the attitude that elicits from our hearts adoration and love, reverence and honor. It focuses not upon the wrath of God but upon the majesty, holiness, and transcendent glory of God.”2
We read, for example, that when Isaiah was in God’s presence he was overwhelmed by God’s glory and majesty. His response showed how in awe he was at being in the presence of such purity and holiness: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”3
The apostle John, when writing about seeing Jesus in heaven, wrote: “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me … When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not …’”4 These were responses to a profound sense of veneration, honor, and awe.
We often focus on the love, mercy, and grace of God, while paying less attention to His awesomeness, glory, majesty, holiness, and power. But all of these are attributes of God, and sometimes there is a healthy tension in our hearts between the two. Jesus told His disciples to address God as Father, which indicates a close personal relationship. By the same token, it is right to acknowledge the reverence, awe, majesty, and glory of God. And it is this side of our relationship to Him that is expressed when we experience the fear of God. We see this awe and reverence expressed in both the Old and New Testaments.
Part of our relationship with the Lord is to “fear” Him in the sense of venerating Him, giving Him profound reverence, honor, admiration, and adoration. Fearing Him also means confessing His absolute uniqueness, acknowledging His majesty, holiness, awesomeness, glory, and power. When we include this in our understanding of God, we are motivated to obey His Word, as we recognize that each of our sins is an affront to His dignity and majesty. Our reverence for God will influence our behavior and regulate our conduct.
Love of God
The second element of a right attitude toward God is an understanding and acceptance of His love for us. Because God is perfect holiness, He must separate Himself from sin; and because we as human beings are sinners, there is a separation between God and humanity. However, through Jesus’ death on the cross, that separation has been spanned. In the book of 1 John, we read that God is love, and John goes on to explain that God showed His love to us through sending His Son to be the propitiation for our sins—to be the sacrifice which allowed our sins to be forgiven, and our relationship with God to be restored.
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”5
As Christians, we understand that without God’s love manifested through Jesus’ sacrifice, we would be subject to God’s wrath. In His love for humanity, God made it possible for us to avoid the judgment that He must mete out on sin, because of His pure holiness; and He did this through Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. He ransomed us from the penalty of our sin. Of course, we see God’s love manifested in many ways—through the beautiful world we live in, His creation, His supply, our families and friends, and so much more. But the principal way we experience His love is through accepting the sacrifice He made in order to restore us to fellowship with Him—the sacrificial death of Jesus.
As those who wish to be more like Jesus, we see salvation not just as something that God has made available to humanity, but to each of us personally. When we read that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,6 we take this to mean that “God loves me personally.” This knowledge of God’s personal love for us, His forgiveness of our sins, our personal restoration to fellowship with Him is the basis of our growth in Christlikeness.
The beauty of God’s love and forgiveness is that it is a work of grace; it rests solely on the work of Jesus and is given to us as a gift of love. Since it is based on grace, and not on our works or behavior, His love for us can never change. His love is unconditional; so no matter how many spiritual ups and downs, sins, failures, or bouts of discouragement we may experience, we can be assured that God still loves us. We are accepted into God’s family and loved by God as one of His children for the sole reason that we are united with His Son through salvation. Nothing will separate us from God and His love.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”7
This awareness of and confidence in God’s unconditional love for us should motivate us to deeper devotion to God, compelling us to align ourselves—mind, body, soul, and spirit—with Him.
Desire for God
Our desire for God is seen in what King David wrote: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”8
Since God is spirit, David wasn’t gazing on God’s physical beauty, but on His attributes. Because of who God is, because of His love for us, we desire fellowship with Him. Like Enoch and Noah, we want to “walk with God.”9 We desire to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,”10 to abide in Him and He in us.11
Our desire for God is more than serving Him and more than prayer or Bible reading, though these things are part of it. Desiring the Lord means longing for Him, for His fellowship and His presence in our lives. We see the culmination of our future fellowship with God in the description of new Jerusalem, when He dwells with His people on earth.
“I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.’”12
The call that Jesus gave to one of the churches in Revelation is also a call for us today: “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”13
Sharing a meal with someone was understood to mean having fellowship with them. Our desire for God includes our wish to fellowship with Him, to know Him better, to love Him more deeply. When we spend time in His presence, we radiate His attributes—His love, kindness, warmth, and mercy—to others.
Our reverence and awe of the Lord, our understanding of His deep love for us, and our deep desire for Him create within us God-centered devotion, which is the foundation for becoming like Him.
Originally published November 2016. Adapted and republished September 2021.
Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.
1 Genesis 3:9–10.
2 This article is based on points taken from The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010), by Jerry Bridges.
3 Isaiah 6:5 ESV.
4 Revelation 1:12, 17 ESV.
5 1 John 4:9–10 ESV.
6 John 3:16.
7 Romans 8:38–39 ESV.
8 Psalm 27:4 ESV.
9 Genesis 5:21–24; 6:9.
10 Psalm 23:6.
11 John 15:4.
12 Revelation 21:2–3 NAU.
13 Revelation 3:20.